Olympic Performance: the passion and drive that helps create it

Article by Hugh Clarke

We invited regular contributor, and friend of SSEAMS, Hugh Clarke to tell us about a special moment in his in-house career. Hugh is a creative, collaborative, and resourceful creator with 15 years of experience successfully designing and developing commercially balanced sportswear including products for several Football FIFA World Cups and the Olympics. He is a technical thinker driven by solving functional problems with a creative out-of-the-box mindset. 

For those of us who are deeply passionate about sports and product innovation, our goal is to help athletes to achieve their best, feel good and enjoy the moment. The Olympics is a very special occasion when athletes who have devoted years of their lives to a single short moment in time, preparing meticulously, leaving no stone unturned in hope for a Gold medal. Envisioning and delivering fresh, innovative high-performing products that truly work to help athletes have the winning edge also takes this level of energy, planning, strategy, and time. 

What takes time is building, testing, refining and the all-important validation; does it do what we want and say it will do?   

Charles Johnson Former PUMA Global Director of Innovation

For Puma Innovation, the journey to the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo began in the Winter of 2016. Our overarching mission was to make our athletes faster by creating “cool stuff that works”. Starting from the ground up we began exploring the possibilities of using aerodynamic science to do so. 

The second key ingredient that we wanted to be sure to get right was the essence and emotion of the product. What if the track-and-field apparel could come alive? Could we visually see the speed of athletes in real-time? We asked ourselves if there were any technologies out there that could help us achieve this vision. We found a UK start-up called the Unseen who were in the process of developing a very special fabric treatment that responded to wind velocities. We created a unique partnership of exploration.  

The innovation design process is closer to product design engineering than traditional apparel design. The products were primarily built around function, aerodynamics, mobility, thermal regulation, and comfort.

PUMA

  

Ingredients of Speed. From an aerodynamic perspective, we looked deep into how aerodynamic science could affect a sprinter and be applied that to apparel. What we found was interesting; when an athlete runs, the airflow is pushed around to the back of the body, and this causes drag which slows athletes down.

This discovery formed the beginning of our hypothesis that we could create aerodynamic apparel. More specifically we determined that we needed different engineered zones to help athletes move through space with less resistance. We would need a solid front so the airflow would wrap around the body. Counterintuitively we would need rough structures to disrupt the airflow on the sides of the body. We also knew the weather conditions in Tokyo would be very hot and humid. So, we knew the apparel would need to be extremely breathable.  

Base construction. We crafted three initial architectures based on the form of the human body. From these pattern shapes, we created several prototypes. We soon honed in on using a premium warp knitting textile technology engineered in Germany. Using this textile technology, we could strategically zone different structures into the apparel with minimal seams. We engineered the textile with a dense structure on the front torso, a lighter, slacker structure on the rest of the body where mobility and breathability were necessary bringing a high level of comfort to the athlete.  

While we believed in our new design we wanted some data to indicate if we were on the right track. Using data from a thermal atlas map, we digitally engineered different open-whole structures on the back of the body, arms and legs where different levels of breathability were required.  

Seen above, the black Jamaican suit would turn bright yellow by the end of the race. 

Performance virtual. To understand better what was needed for the aerodynamic properties, we turned to Siemens Engineering Services who used Aerodynamics CFD Simulation technology to model a sprinter and stimulate different sprinting environments. As the tests were virtual, they were able to run hundreds of iterations. The data pulled from the virtual tests showed us precisely the most effective zones to place the aerodynamic structures on the body. 

We then zoomed in on the aerodynamic structures, to find the right amount of disruption. We created numerous aerodynamic structures of different shapes, heights, sizes and thicknesses and then reran hundreds of virtual tests to find the most efficient solution. In the end we landed on strategically placing little brush knobs. 

Performance in the real world. The virtual world can only take us so far.  We knew our apparel had to work in real-world applications. We created dozens of prototypes and developed arm and calf sleeves commonly used by sprinters as well. 

With the help of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology we tested our prototypes in a wind tunnel under renowned aerodynamicist, Luca Oggiano. Those results further validated the design. 

For a real user experience, we again tested the suit on our elite athletes for final validation. At the end of the day if they were not happy with the suits in anyway then it would be back to the drawing board.  

Essence. The science of sport is one thing but creating something that inspires an emotional connection is another. This path was also deeply entrenched in science. 

The vision here was to have the sprint suit change colour during a race.  The sprinter would start the race in one colour cross the line in another. 

Collaborating with the Unseen we initially validated the concept in a wind tunnel at Portsmouth University. Here we created the scenario of a 100-metre sprint race. With the correct wind velocity set we had a sprinter run in several different sprint suit prototypes with different fabric treatments from the Unseen. This was a magical moment as we clearly saw the colour change affect an athlete.  

Innovation is not without risks. Sometimes what you set out to achieve becomes too complex for realization. While we continued to develop the sprint suit colour change technology further, we were unable to commercialise it in time for the games.

PUMA

It was a very long wait as the Tokyo games 2020 was in 2021. In the end we helped the PUMA sponsored athletes from 12 National Athletic Federations, such as Jamaica, Norway and Sweden attain a total of 22 gold, 24 silver and 20 bronze medals. 

What stood out for me was seeing the passion and emotion of athletes who have given everything to achieve excellence boiling over in competition. For me the Jamaica women’s 100 meter had it all as the Gold , Silver and Bronze medals were all won in the PUMA sprint suit.

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